Masses and Massacres
I spent a brief interlude a few years ago travelling around the world, frequently to places slightly off the beaten track. This was in pre-Kindle days and I found myself becoming quite reliant on the local bookcases of anywhere I ended up for reading matter. I ended up reading all sorts of weird things – a book about Israeli nuclear weapons entitled The Samson Option, for instance – as well as a lot of what I would previously have described as 'improving literature'. I read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Don Quixote, Middlemarch, The Grapes of Wrath, and Mansfield Park, amongst others, and what I discovered is that these books have endured not just because they will help you pass your exams, but because they are actually really good books.
Is there a movie equivalent to the 'improving book'? If there is, then I would say that most of the Mike Leigh films I have seen would qualify. I am aware that Leigh makes his serious films and his not-quite-so-serious films, but I must confess that I find all the ones that I've seen to be pretty hard work, despite the fact that they are clearly made with conviction and with many of the most impressive actors currently working in the UK. Maybe it's the Mike Leigh Renowned Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method that I just can't get on with. And yet I persevere, because everyone else agrees that he is a major British director whose films deserve to be looked at.
Leigh has recently turned up with his second costume-drama film in a row, the latest one being Peterloo. Now, for a long time I thought that Peterloo was the name of a medium-sized railway station somewhere in the midlands, but of course it is not: it is the name given to a defining moment in British political history, the bicentennial of which will be on us next summer (I would have thought releasing Peterloo for the actual anniversary would have been the smart move, but then again this is hardly what you'd call a summer movie).
The film itself opens in 1815, with a cleverly economical depiction of the battle of Waterloo, followed by various tableaux of the red-coated survivors, damaged but victorious, limping back to Britain. This is intercut with scenes of Parliament acting very self-congratulatory, giving huge amounts of cash to the Duke of Wellington but totally ignoring his troops, and one of Wellington's generals being put in charge of the army in the north of England, where an insidious ideology threatening insurrection and sedition has apparently established itself...
What's all that about, then? Well, the film settles down to focus on a group of reformers, hoping to do something about the (to modern eyes) incredibly unfair and corrupt political system of the period. (A huge new industrial city like Manchester had no representation in parliament, while the vote itself was limited only to landowners. This basically allowed the toiling workers in the mills to be royally screwed over and worked halfway to death without their having much in the way of recourse.) The reformers are working to introduce a greater degree of democracy and to reduce the level of inequality between rich and poor. One of their ideas is to hold a huge public meeting at St Peter's Fields in Manchester, to be addressed by the gentleman and radical orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear).
The leading magistrates of the region (who are introduced in a series of vignettes where they are shown having old women flogged for having a sneaky drink of their employer's hooch, and men hanged for stealing coats) are less than delighted by this idea, seeing it as the potential beginning of a republican uprising and the overthrow of British society (this was less than thirty years after the French revolution, after all). Tension grows when someone throws a potato at the Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny). Leaders of the movement are arrested and the militia is placed on standby...
Caught up in all of this, and in many ways the chief point of audience identification, is a typical family of workers from Manchester, one of whose members returns from France at the start of the film. Led by matriarch Nellie (Maxine Peake), they go along with the reformist movement and decide to attend the huge meeting that takes place at the climax of the film. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, it's the bit you've been waiting for: the Peterloo massacre!
Hmmm, I don't often say this, but this is a really odd one. As ever with Mike Leigh, every frame of the film seems to sweat conviction and authenticity, and it almost goes without saying that the costume drama is one type of film that the British film industry does exceedingly well almost without trying particularly hard. And yet this is, inevitably, more than just another simple bonnet opera: the film isn't quite the undiluted agitprop it could have been if, say, Ken Loach had been in charge of it, but it is certainly not uncoloured by political ideas about democracy and the representation of the will of the people. At times it almost resembles what Barry Lyndon would have been like, if that film had been written by Jeremy Corbyn.
Even I would normally shy away from a film with a description like that (and I should mention that the main critic of one right-wing newspaper has declared it to be 'unwatchable'), but I should say that Peterloo remains engaging and curiously accessible throughout – although possibly not for reasons that Leigh and the other film-makers would be delighted about. This is clearly a very earnest, completely seriously-intentioned film, with many early scenes consisting almost entirely of characters making long-winded speeches to groups of other characters (this does become slightly hard work). But at the same time, it contains a large number of performances that are comically, almost self-parodically broad. It's the fact that the film doesn't seem to have much sense of humour that pushes some scenes towards comedy: the dialogue amongst the working-class characters kicks off with people saying things like 'Ey, ah'll sithee' to each other and proceeds to include gems such as 'I shall take my leave now, for I intend to go home and partake of a hot potato pie'. But is this a sign something weirdly deadpan is going on here after all? Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method or not, I refuse to believe you would put that line in your film without your tongue being at least partly in your cheek.
Once you start noticing these sort of moments it's very hard to stop: there's a hilarious, Monty Python-like scene in which the family of barely-literate factory labourers pause to discuss the history, nature, and consequence of the Corn Laws, all for the benefit of the audience. The wicked magistrates are a set of grotesques straight from Royston Vasey. Rory Kinnear is wearing a wig which makes him look rather like Terry Scott's character in Carry On Up the Jungle. Perhaps they should have gone the whole hog and cast Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent, again – the choice of McInnerny just means everyone is going to be thinking of Blackadder anyway.
Oh, I suppose that I am just being silly and that Peterloo is meant to be the very serious film that it initially looks and sounds like. But someone has made some very odd creative choices along the way. The final third is difficult not to take seriously, at least, even if subtlety has long since left the theatre – decent, progressive, generous working-class protestors turn up to the mass protest, while the forces of elitism and privilege gathered against them cackle and plot in top hats while they help themselves to claret.
The film's big set piece is, obviously, the Peterloo massacre itself, and while Leigh is a great composer of a shot, in addition to being a talented director of actors, it initially looks like he's fluffed the climax of the film – the camera is way up in the air away from the action as the cavalry and the soldiers advance into the panicking crowd. It's competent but not cinematic. Later on, though, he does put the camera on the ground, in the middle of it all, and you do get a sense of the blood and panic and chaos of it all. Even so, the obvious anger of the film doesn't necessarily translate into great cinema, and for a piece which is presumably at least partly meant to be educational, Leigh arguably fumbles the conclusion: I was expecting the traditional caption detailing the historical details of the massacre (a death toll is not provided), its consequences and political significance. None of this is given.
So in the end this is a rather odd film that sort of works, in that it does tell the story of the Peterloo massacre and provides some historical context for it – but on the other hand, it really doesn't do quite enough in this respect, and too often the film seems to be on the verge of toppling over into some sort of gonzo comedy, just one without any actual jokes. Certainly a worthy and interesting piece of work, but largely devoid of subtlety and afflicted by a real inconsistency when it comes to its tone.